Five Female Poets on Protest and Resistance

The following writers use poetry to explore injustice and question societal norms. Whether it’s responding to North Korean missile taunts, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the inadequacy of the U.S. government’s Apology to Native Americans, realities of school shootings, or questioning inequities in power and economic divides—their poems radiate defiance and vision.

Ms. connected with these five poets to showcase their work and ask about writing poetry of resistance.

Tarfia Faizullah

Collections: Seam, Registers of Illuminated Villages

Favorite Line: “Truth — finds its own coarse measure” – Vievee Francis

Tarfia speaks about this poem: I moved to Detroit about five years ago, and “I Told the Water” was one of the first poems I ever drafted in Michigan. I began to obsess over what I perceive as the daily ongoing war over resources, and how the allocation of those resources is decided, and therefore divided. This is one of those poems that I didn’t myself understand until the Flint water crisis began, and I started paying attention to just how much we take water for granted until circumstances remind us that we can’t. I was reminded, too, that there’s so much that is unsaid, and withheld.

Tarfia on water: I’m thinking now about how water is more than one thing at once: a necessity, a commodity, but also a physical element available in nature that we interact with and through. The visual space in this poem can connote the silence of the conversation around resources like water, and poverty. I was also thinking of the curiously musical silence you’re surrounded by when underwater.

Tarfia on poetry as protest: I think among us are forces designed to police our imaginations, and therefore, limit the freedoms of our articulations. There’s a vast difference between what is thought or felt, and what is said. I guess I would say that poetry continues to be the risk I take to try to bridge those gaps. Poetry is a subversive act, and like all subversive acts, it occupies and holds its own space.

Tarfia on illumination: Poetry has taught me how to take what is invisible, and to find the tangible in it. I like how the word illumination connotes both radiance, as well as understanding. My collection Registers of Illuminated Villages, which I’ve been working on for 15 years, revealed itself to me slowly. There’s a connection between illumination and revelation that I’m exploring, what’s hidden, what we unearth, and what we choose to share. I’ve been trying, for a long time now, to understand how we carry memory without letting it overpower us. This book is part of that effort.

“I TOLD THE WATER” appears in the Michigan Quarterly Review and Registers of Illuminated Villages, copyright © 2018 by Tarfia Faizullah. Reprinted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved.

Aja Monet

For the Kids Who Live

what becomes of children who survive us?
indigo rosebuds or sunflowers risen of landfills
voices made of tire swings and milk crates
stick figures in sand drawn by fallen twigs
who looks history in the eye, grins
imagines worlds away within
the power to better
love above law
risk above comfort
for the lost and departed
wandering in memories unspoken
who will unruin this generation
their right to bloom brilliant,
stumble or fall
enchanted by tomorrows
here’s to the kids who live in Liberty City
bounce house and jumping rope
where no bullet lives to tell a fairytale
for the kids whose toes dip on shores
songs made of sandcastles and broken glass
rinsed by rushing water
return home to a land that welcomes another way
where no child is a refugee
here’s to the kids who live to see a world without walls
to the kids who cross-
examine borders, time zones, and language
who dab presidents out of rooms
and judges out of courthouses
a vote with values
music with no commercials
for the preservation of rivers, parks, and birds
to the kids who live
praise wind, light, and rain
here’s to the words they speak
trembling of blameless rage
old spirits thundering on tongues
here’s to holding hands with fortunetellers
to the kids who read palms
a gift with no return address
a world without begging fingers
to the kids who live in food desert boroughs
jubilant with full bellies and crops of care
thirst quenched from free fountains
here’s to the kids who live in tears turned from laughter
to serious play
may they never know caskets
before grayed hair and wrinkled skin
like crinkled poems in a old lover’s hold
here’s to the ones who live in photo albums
images teased of dreams
bless the child who remembers
who questions
and answers with courage
or the kids who live to bury their elders
bare a new story made possible
a test, a struggle, a journey that reveals the heart
here’s to the kids who live
who live and dare us
stand a side
may they embarrass us
show us who we are
here’s to the kids who live in us and never leave
resting in the dimples of a mirror
stretching through a glance
how many kids must die for us to live?
here’s to the kids who live in us
to the kids who live and demand
we act
in the doing
here and now
awestruck and unafraid

Collection: My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter

Favorite Line: “A poem should happen to you like cold water or a kiss” –  Ntozake Shange

Aja on poetry as protest: What is a poem if not a form of protest? Every word must insist on active listening. As I write I struggle against form and domination of thoughts to create more room for truth-telling. A truth-telling poem should make you shiver with that which you recognize in yourself and horrifies you in others. The most powerful poems are the ones that refuse and resist individuality. They aren’t easy to write. I’d be lucky if I succeed at writing one effective poem in my life. I’m still writing for that poem. The poem can’t just be therapy; it has to also be a call to action. A poem can intensify intervention of thought toward action and I busy myself with the craft of that.

Aja on art’s role in society: We have to broaden the conversation beyond poems to think of creativity as a whole. In a society so wrought with destruction and complacency, creativity and art is a form of resistance we need to survive. It preserves our love for self and one another.

Aja’s favorite poets: Ntozake Shange and June Jordan are two poets who I often return to. Ntozake is one of those poets you may not know her name or even her work but every poem written after her has traces of her voice. That’s magic. As for June Jordan, when I feel really down and out about current events, I read June and I remember I am not the first to suffer, to cry, to laugh, to live and resist. It’s easy to get down. We praise so many of our ancestors and put them on pedestals we forget they, too, got weary and made a way. June Jordan is like a sister-friend who sits beside me and nods at my frustrations with movement and life, sips the tea, and says, “Carry on, carry on, my sister. Another day is coming.”

Aja on limitations: Poetry doesn’t do anything miraculous that people themselves aren’t capable of doing without a poem. Poetry offers a way, a perspective, a lighthouse. A poem can bring us together toward a shared feeling of being and we can begin to practice compassion for one another but it will not inherently humanize the reader. The reader must discover for themselves what aches, what ails them, and how they can address those needs.

Layli Long Soldier

Collection: WHEREAS

Favorite Line: “No word has any special hierarchy over any other”– Arthur Sze

Layli on writing WHEREAS: The Whereas series responding to the National Apology to Native Americans came out of frustration. Exhaustion. Exasperation, I suppose, at not being seen or heard. It hit hard, realizing that our tribal leaders were not even afforded a formal, public delivery of such an historic apology, and that no one seemed to question this. It was status quo, an accepted way of doing things that many of us, including me, can become numb to. And suddenly, for whatever reason, that Apology was a tipping point. I could no longer ignore it, this build-up of a lifetime of slights, invisibility, and erasure.

Layli on poetry as activism: When I wrote the poems, I did not sit down to my computer with the intention of being an activist nor did I view my poems as ready-made forms of activism. I do believe there are other writers who may work with a strong sense of activism as they’re writing, and I see nothing wrong with that. But for me, the term “activism” feels like a term that resides outside the poem—it may be the result of a poem or a body of work, but my poems themselves were born from something more intimate and personal; a kind of emotional gnawing and grinding. Now that I’ve said all that, I admit that at some point during my drafting of the Whereas poems—maybe one-third of the way through—I began to realize that there was more at stake than my own feelings and emotional release.

Layli on creative process: My writing often comes from a place of emotional urgency and insistence—or persistence! I write as means to address this nagging and gnawing—whatever it is that I cannot seem to shake, that continues to say, I will not go away! Write me! I follow that. For me, art is a way of “thinking out loud.” Of all genres of writing, I believe poetry allows the most freedom for this. In contrast to the essay, a poem does not require me to prove a thesis. I have the space to say, “this is what I’m thinking about,” and I can allow the reader to follow, to walk with me, as far as I can go. And if there is no answer or resolution, that in itself, can be the beauty of a poem, right? It is what we might call an opening up, rather than a shutting down or closure to a piece.

Layli on language: This is my way of letting people in, letting them think with me. Particular words—just one word, let’s say—can alter an entire law or piece of legislation. This is the power of language. It shapes our very physical existence: where or how we live, our rights. Alternately, language shapes how we understand our existence, how we feel about it. So, to be honest, this is much of what consumes my daydream time. I enjoy thinking about words—I’m delighted by them. I can become entranced by the sound or music of words, too. For example, the word cacophony. I am loving that word lately!  It’s a gorgeous, crunchy sound. And I’ll use it, I’m sure, for the specific purpose of including its music. As much as certain “issues” move me to write, certain words, just one word all on its own, can propel me into a poem.

Layli on writing as a duel citizen: There’s nothing we can do sometimes, to change the citizenship under which we are born; nor do we necessarily want to change that citizenship. However, those political boundaries become emotional and psychological boundaries too. Barriers, we might say. The space between those boundaries is, where, I believe the Whereas poems live. It’s this space that I sought to open up. And its territory that is not addressed in the National Apology. It is to say, I am a dual citizen of the U.S. and the Oglala Lakota Nation yet I am a human: complex, deserving of the respect to be seen and heard, craving to be understood.

“Resolution 7” appears in WHEREAS. Copyright © 2017 by Layli Long Soldier. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved.

Airea D. Matthews

Collection: Simulacra

Favorite Line: “I sunder in a different language.” – Ladan Osman

Airea speaks about this poem: I constantly read between the lines; I’m fluent in subtext. When I researched the Constitution, I felt distant from it. I couldn’t place my ancestors’ rights in the document because they weren’t considered full citizens. I felt there was very little room for dialogue and understanding; it’s dense. There are a lot of words that mean very little to people without a law degree, which leads to misinterpretation. My charge in my poem was to present that subtext, to interpret a more accessible (and honest) document. I wanted to explore what it would mean to pare down the language through white-space erasure and consider the ways in which the slimmed-down text tells a more accurate story of American intention than the original.

Airea on resistance: Imagine a moment of pain. You’ve fallen and broken a bone or are injured in some way. The first instinct is to heed pain and tell someone “I’m hurt and I need help.” Reaching out to someone else and getting care is an active form of resisting that pain. And that resistance started with language and one simple word, “Help!” The moment any issue impacts someone enough to cause pain, there rises up a deep desire to communicate or fundamentally, and succinctly, express one’s thoughts or one’s condition. Poetry allows that precisely because it deploys language, thought and feeling with urgency. Essentially, poetry can serve as rallying call–an opportunity to abandon a strict notion of self as an independent entity and see self in others. I might go so far as to say poetry was one of the very first #metoo movements.

Airea’s advice for writers: Every poem starts with a question and a true desire for dialogue. If you believe you want to write a poem, research your topic and come with questions. Don’t assume your beliefs are on the right side of history. Be ready to interrogate the issue through the poem and be open to surprise. Image and language are mighty thought leaders. You might come to realize, by the end of the poem, many passions brought you to your project—not just anger or justice.

Airea’s favorite poets: I adore the work of other contemporaries: Vievee Francis, Erin Adair-Hodges, Rachel McKibbens and Ladan Osman. Each writer, in her own way, speaks to a certain set of feminine truths and experiences that might otherwise be disregarded. I am left continually breathless by poets and thinkers like Anne Sexton, Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Lucie Brock-Broido…the list goes on. Their words remain when the spirit does not.

Airea on expectations: I am writing in a time of heightened identity, and there are some expectations that the Black woman writer should, in some way, announce racial identity in the work. But I rebel against that expectation. I refuse to write about race or identity in predictable terms. Race is but one facet to being. I prefer a multi-faceted approach to my work, one which perceives people as puzzles. And if we seriously read poetry, with heart and mind, we should be up for the cognitive challenges of figuring things out.

“Con The Re-Mix” appears in The Rumpus.

Franny Choi

Collections: Floating, Brilliant, Gone, Death by Sex Machine

Favorite Line: “The poem dreams of bodies always leadless, bearing / only things ordinary / as water & light.” – Aracelis Girmay

Franny speaks about this poem: I wrote the piece during one of those periods in which North Korea was in the news (when Kim Jong-Un and Trump were lobbing threats back and forth). For me, it highlighted the particular strangeness of being a South Korean-American with anti-imperialist politics, amidst those crossing lines of rhetoric and allegiance. So the poem was an attempt to factor down some of the weird contradictions I was feeling in that moment. I was also hoping it would help complicate things for anyone who might look at a Korean American and think the story was simple. Anyone who was down to buy that golden child narrative that’s used, inevitably, as another tool of war-waging.

Franny on poetry as resistance: A poem on its own can make a person experience literally anything on the range of human emotion. It can make them reconsider their worldview or feel alive for the first time in months or want to jump into the ocean or love people more. What it can’t do is close a prison—at least not on its own, not without resources and strategy and a lot of people power. But I want to resist the assumption that this is a limitation that’s unique to art. Resistance is always interdependent; it always requires collaboration and complexity.

Franny’s favorite poets: I learn so much from the ways women writers of color like Layli Long Soldier, Bhanu Kapil, and Dawn Lundy Martin make acts of resistance through wild innovations in language. I feel tethered by the rigorous tenderness of Aracelis Girmay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil and their reminders to stay soft as I’m looking. And of course Patricia Smith is a star I’m always following.

Franny’s advice for writers: Always consider your personal connection to the subject of the poem. This is especially crucial when we attempt to write about things that fall under the category of “current event” or kinds of violence that we’re not directly (or at least primarily) affected by. But I think it’s just as important of a question when writing about the things that do affect us personally. What are my motivations for writing this? What is the thing I can say about this that no one else can? Trying to stay honest about what brought me to the poem helps me to stay honest as I approach it; and to stay kind to myself and to the reader even in my anger.

Franny on remembering hope: Think about what you’re building, not just what you’re tearing down. By this I don’t mean that every poem needs to propose an entire system to replace the workings of oppression. It can be a moment of joy, a lingering feeling, a question, a map, even a beautiful set of words that someone can carry away with them. This can be strangely hard to remember when thinking about everything that needs to be dismantled, but I think this is really the heart of resistance: the unreasonable belief that there’s an alternative to despair. And I think as poets we’re at least partly responsible for building that alternative, in bits, in pockets.



Emily Sernaker is a Ms. contributor and a staff writer for the International Rescue Committee. Her poetry, articles and reviews have appeared in The Sun, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, McSweeney's, The Rumpus and more. She is a 2019 Lincoln City Fellowship recipient in poetry.